The Writer – Part Five

Read Part Four.
Read the whole thing on ‘The Writings’ page.

The Writer – Part Four
May 2011

When Fraser awoke he was still buckled to the table and he ached all over, as if he had run too far and lifted too many weights, all at once.  He could feel a nerve spasming in his right arm – the strap held it still but something deep inside the limb was moving rhythmically like a second pulse.  There was a different nurse in the room; he asked if he could get up yet and she smiled and told him that he seemed much calmer and would be able to leave soon.  She said that whilst he had been asleep they had cleaned the cuts on his cheek, and they were going to trim his fingernails so he would not hurt himself again.  Another nurse came to his side with a pair of nail clippers, but after inspecting his blunt fingernails for a few seconds she frowned and took the unused clippers away.

*

Nadia did not come back the next day, or the next, and gradually Fraser came to think that he would not see her again.  His cheek healed quickly, but ever since his treatment in the room with the humming machine his right arm had twitched relentlessly.  He sat in the armchair and watched his hand slowly curl and uncurl itself; he could see the muscle in the wrist tightening and releasing, like a mooring-rope in rhythmically bobbing waves.

One night he lay still on the bed until he heard The Shark snoring; then he got up and pulled back the bed sheet that covered his secret.  Underneath, neatly laid out but creased and folded by the nightly weight of his body, were sheets of paper.  When he first arrived the watchers had told him he would not be allowed to write any more, but he had smuggled in paper between the pages of his books and collected more whenever he could.

Here was a scrap he had secreted inside his copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four; here the discarded cardboard cover of a prescription pad; there, the pride of his collection, a sheet of the institution’s thick headed notepaper, damaged from where he had folded it and stored it under his arm all day until he was taken back into his cell in the evening.  Although he had carefully hoarded this stash of quiet rebellion, he had not written a single word since his arrival.  Instead he would, just occasionally, draw back the sheet and look at the shadows of the barred window as they fell across his collection.

Tonight was different.  His self-beckoning arm ached as though it were straining for something out of reach.  A pen.

Fraser chose a page from the foot of the bed; it had been torn from a book and was marked only with the words ‘Part One’.  He drew out one of the pens that he kept in a hole in his mattress.  It took a considerable effort to put the pen into his hand, but as soon as he made a mark his self-willed limb began to come under control.  Sitting on the edge of the bed, savouring the relief the pen gave him from the persistent tic, he drew unconscious symbols and traced around the edges of shadows.

He looked up at the window – one leg under him, the other rooted to the floor – and allowed his hand to work blind.  There was nothing to see outside; the sky was overcast and held the dark night tightly against the earth.  A chill came under the door and the cloud momentarily broke so that he could see a star.

Fraser looked down at the page and saw that he had written a sentence.  It took him a few moments to realise it was the last sentence he had written on that day, before the telephone rang.  He recalled how he had not rushed to answer it, but had finished his thought and carefully rounded it off with a full stop, before standing up from the desk.  Fraser read and re-read the sentence, which hung on the page incomplete, lacking its tiny punctuational conclusion.  His hand, poised but unused, began to twitch again and the pen dropped onto the bed.

Fraser struggled to pick it up again.  He wrestled with his writhing right hand and eventually held it in place, with the help of his left.  Through gritted teeth, and with a balled two-handed fist, Fraser finally planted a full stop at the end of the hanging sentence.  He listened for the sound of a telephone but all was quiet.  Even the man next door was not scratching tonight.  He slid the pen back into the mattress, pulled the bed sheet back into place and slowly tore up the page on which he had written.  For the watchers to find paper was one thing, but finding words was quite another.  The Shark was snoring resoundingly beyond the door but the noise of ripping paper was still unbearably loud.  Then, because he had no other way to dispose of the fragments, he ate them all in the dark.

 

For three weeks after Nadia’s appearance Fraser adopted a nightly ritual of scribbling and doodling.  It brought his hand under control, but he only allowed himself to draw in margins and around the edges of the paper.  He did not write again, but he could not bear to fill the pages entirely.  The lost hours of sleep made bags under his eyes, which would have been noticeable if anybody bothered to look at him closely.

The little barred window in his cell was particularly bright on the night that Nadia visited for a second time.  Fraser sat on his bed with one leg crossed under him and the other on the chair.  He had taken a book and let it fall open wherever it would; he scribbled in its pages around the text and tried not to look at the wall where the desk used to be.  Suddenly a shadow fell across the page; she was holding the manuscript.

“How?” said Fraser.

“You’re writing again.”  She was hopeful.

He held up the book and she frowned at the symbols.  She put her hand on the chair and he moved his leg.  Sitting down she started shuffling through the stack of papers in her lap, and drew out a sheet at random.

“‘Nadia called to her husband.  Her voice brought to his mind the sounds of bubbling streams and birdsong, of honey being spread stickily onto white bread’.  Quite an overdone sentence if I’m honest, but I see what you were going for,” she said.

Fraser’s hand grasped at empty air and he jammed it under his other arm.  The boiling feeling in his stomach had returned and he hated that he could not take his eyes off her.  She continued to sort through the papers, reading out snatched fragments which described her house and her husband.  The husband was not a character Fraser was ever pleased with; he had not been honest enough about himself to make his fictional doppelgänger breathe.  But judging by the tension in her face and the lowering of her voice it seemed that the feelings he had created between them were genuine.

Nadia drew out another page and stared at it for a long time.  Her fingers ran over the scrawled ink.  Through the paper he could see the neon stains of highlighter pens scored over with dense black lines.  It had taken him two weeks to get the birth scene right.  Her second-hand features adopted an expression that his wife had never worn.  She looked up and he held her gaze for a few seconds; she returned her attention to the manuscript.

At last she reached to the back of the pile and held out in front of Fraser the last four pages.  He could hardly bear to see his own sorrow writ large; the pen had made such deep indentations that in places it had gone right through and glimpses of Nadia’s hair and skin were visible on the other side.  The words cascaded down the page; the ruled lines and margins had been ignored, and some words were only half visible where he had written straight through a punched hole onto the desk beneath.  He remembered how the desk had looked after that night: stained and sticky from the toppled whisky glass and dotted here and there with tiny, inky carvings of half-words.

Fraser took the ending from her.  There was the car crash, soon followed by the axe murderer, who was succeeded too quickly by howling moor gales and the baying of hungry wolves.  A laugh like a sob burst out of him and then another.  Within seconds he melted into hysterical laughter, shaking all over, its hand tugging itself more violently into repeated spasm.

“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” he spluttered, “It’s just … such bad writing!”

She stared at him darkly.  Then she took the pages back and smiled.

“Well, like I said, you’re going to rewrite it,” she said.

Fraser stopped laughing.

“And like I said, I can’t.”

“You never meant to write this,” she said holding up the tattered paper, “so why can’t you do it again?”

“You know why.”

“Don’t you dare ruin my life because you’re angry with your wife for dying.”

Fraser stood up.

“Get out,” he said.

She shook her head and began to tell him that she would not leave, but he seized her by the wrist and pulled her to her feet.  She struggled free but stood her ground; every word and movement reminded him.  He took her by the shoulders and told her again to get out.  Her face was so close to his that he could feel her breath on his skin.  She told him she would go when he promised to rewrite her ending.  He pulled on her hair and her mouth opened in pain, and she looked so like Naomi the last time he had seen her that for a moment he believed she had never died.  He kissed her angrily.  She tore herself away and they faced each other across the moonlit floor.  He could not refuse her now.

She went to the bed and pulled back the sheet.  A few pieces of paper lifted off the mattress and drifted through the air like leaves caught in a gust of wind.

“Rewrite the fucking ending,” she said.


Read Part Six.

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